Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Into the great wide open - going beyond materialism

So do you believe in the possibility of a greater purpose to existence? The possibility of a Higher Power? What about psychic abilities? Transmigration of a mind? Of a soul? Of a karmic imprint? What about shadow beings from another dimension? Or are you committed to a view of reality which is strictly materialistic? Would you be interested in exploring the margins of materialism and peering over the edge at what might be "out there?

(Are you coming along or what?)

Scouting the boundaries - a quick look at how we frame reality

Our organs of perception are limited, even with the aid of technology, not to mention the bias of our perceptual filters, our base worldview rooted in cultural stories and values (science is not immune to this either) and our personal experiences, etc. Let's unpack this a little by reflecting on the tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is "visible" to us, or the limits in our range of hearing or smell or touch.

Of that, a lot of what is received in the sense organs is ignored - only a select fraction is promoted through pattern-searching filters to higher level filters, which then sort according to our expectations about what is meaningful (for example, this mechanism is being tricked when we "hear" English words in white noise or "see" a face in a mildew stain). Of that, an even smaller portion is even given attention by the conscious mind.

And let us not overlook the impact of these biological and cultural constraints in shaping our notion of reality. Our experience can actually rewire our brains to help us see and think in ways that are compatible with our environment, which for social creatures such as us includes the basic worldview or meta-narrative of our own society. These are things we consider so basic we all but ignore them until we have a case of culture shock when we are exposed to people who see a different world than ours and have a distinct set of bedrock assumptions about the nature of existence.

If we then add in the boundaries of science - that which is grossly and broadly empirical and regularly occurring in brief intervals and simple enough to be generalized into our "complex" models - then we are by our own admission limiting ourselves to a very narrowly defined segment of reality. I am not suggesting invoking the broader possibilities of reality at every turn as a substitute with equal credibility to extant explanations, but I would also keep that space open. It's the same space that scientists invoke when they admit that the knowledge they produce is always provisional - the humility of our recognized limitations in the face of what is beyond our grasp. It is the source of the holy curiosity of many folks who were major empiricists such as Einstein.

Setting the stage - considering a broader frame

So how might we envision this larger world? Imagine that there is a set of phenomena that we collective call reality. Imagine that some of them produce patterns that are beyond our comprehension. Imagine that some cannot be detected by our senses and we have no conceptual basis for visualizing them, let alone building a machine to "look for" them. Imagine that some can be detected, but only very irregularly and/or weakly, or only through direct conscious awareness.

Now imagine a subset of these which are grossly empirical, which do fit the expectations we use in producing the explanations of our senses in our minds, and which do occur regularly. So people call this subset, which is most compatible with their regular experiences of reality and the expectations that come from them, physical or material reality. Some people presume this is all there is to reality, even though they have evidence of phenomena that are beyond detection or rational comprehension. Some people on the other hand allow that there is probably a lot more to reality than we imagine.

In this view, since the subset referred to as material reality belongs to the lager set, they may have some aspect or quality (just as mass is a quality for the bulk of the material subset) which they share with the larger set. Linked through such a quality, these other phenomena, which otherwise would seem illogical or at least invisible, can affect the smaller subset. I suppose two hundred years ago this might have been what it would sound like to try to describe quantum physics or nonlocality.

What if we had been unable to predict or test things like quantum physics or nonlocality? The effects would still be there, but we would not be able to account for them. It is logical to assume there are things in the larger set that will defy our notion of reason and our science. They will not be accessible or detectable by any human-made instrument, and we will not have the right configuration or capacity of intellect to anticipate them, let alone confront them. Yet it is still possible that we can experience them in some way. The experiences may not be amenable to any kind of satisfactory scientific inquiry, but that does not in turn mean that the experiences are not real.

This isn't a knock on science. I am merely suggesting that it isn't the only reliable way to appreciate our universe. and it is fraught with ego, cultural assumptions and values, etc. Science is great, it's useful, but it has its biases and limits (it is fraught with ego, cultural assumptions and values, etc). As Spock said in Star Trek VI, "Logic is the beginning of wisdom...not the end." We can apply this sentiment to science as well when it comes to knowledge - it is a handy tool, but hardly the only useful tool in our toolbox, unless one embraces scientism.

But isn't "X..." just in our heads?

Must phenomenon such as a conscious experience that can be associated with a biological reaction must be presumed to reduce (strictly and solely) to that reaction? Just because a certain part of the brain shows increased activity when we report the experience of "sight" doesn't mean it is just a "feeling" produced in our brain. It is indeed a perception that occurs solely in the brain, and which cannot occur if certain parts of the brain are damage or impaired, but that doesn't mean sight is "all in our heads" in the sense that it isn't connected to something beyond ourselves (in this case light).

Biological activity associated with an experience may be necessary but not sufficient for that experience to occur and therefore may be necessary but not sufficient in explaining that experience (such as not being able to "see" in the dark - the biological components are working fine sight). An object emitting energy may give of light and heat. Light is then detected focused and directed by the lens of an eye, stimulating the rods and cones in the photosensitive cells of the retina which becomes a signal transmitted to the brain.

Detecting brain activity when someone reports experiencing "sight" doesn't make the brain the ultimate cause of "light", which is not identical to "sight". Nor is the optic nerve nor is the retina the ultimate cause. We did not always have instruments that could detect light other than our eyes, and even if we had never developed them that would not make light something that exists only as a function of our optic nerve or as the "imaginary" source of input feeding our sense of sight.

These observations do not contradict conventional biology or the proximate links between brain activity and conscious experiences. It does not deny an important biological component to conscious experiences, either feelings or perceptions. As noted earlier there are dozens if not hundreds of little assumptions and biases between "our senses" and "the data" we are examining (this is true for all of us). While reductionism leading to materialism is a logical expedient for science, that doesn't mean it is entirely accurate or can account for any and all important phenomena.

Ready to launch

So far, you may have noticed, nothing I have said posits a view that would require or even promote a belief in anything associated with ideas such God or angels or psychic powers. This is important, because even if we depart ways further down the road, we can at least hopefully agree with the premises laid down so far and thus more accurately see the distinctions in our points of view. A foundation, however modest, has been laid for considering a world beyond strict materialism. It is from this foundation that we can then explore, without firm commitment, ideas which otherwise would at first blush cause a semantic allergy attack and a reflexively contrary posture. Stay tuned!

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